A day before University of KwaZulu-Natal closed for mid-semester break, students woke up to find a statue of King George V, the former crown jewel of the campus’s most beautiful building, defaced. This was widely reported as the beginning of a #GeorgeMustFall movement that would follow the lead of the transformation efforts being made by black students at the University of Cape Town. The past week’s holiday has allowed the hype to simmer, but as the campus reopened on Tuesday there has been talk of forum discussions and public debates which should help students decide whether to support this movement or continue as normal until the statue is cleaned. We should lay down our arms.
On the morning of the 26 March, the day UKZN woke up to find the statue of King George V defaced, there was no organised movement on campus explaining or justifying the action. Instead we found a handful of opportunistic Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members spewing a particularly racist brand of Pan-Africanism and a small group of student activists debating their opinions. Throughout the day there was never more than 100 people gathered around the statue and the majority those people were non-partisan onlookers indulging their curiosity and perhaps gaining some entertainment. Nevertheless, the national media outlets arrived in full force.
The day before, an independent newspaper had interviewed many students asking them if they felt that transformation was a problem and if they would feel empowered by the removal of the statue. Most replied in the negative. They could not see how the statue’s absence would improve their student experiences and they felt that UKZN was, through initiatives such as the policy whereby new students are compelled to take an indigenous language, making adequate efforts to make them feel valued as black students.
Max Du Preez, a former UKZN professor, recently wrote that the protests at UCT give a valuable insight into the demands and aspirations of the emerging black middle class. It is worth noting that the UKZN student body is anything but comfortably middle class. UCT’s fees are roughly twice as high as ours, their exclusion rate is much more unforgiving, and their student body is less reliant on NSFAS financial aid. Pigmentation aside, we are not the same. Later that day a representative of the KZN Students Representative Council, which I believe has at least some claim to represent students, came out and unequivocally dissociated itself with the act and claimed the SRC had more pressing concerns. These were the same concerns they have every year – financial aid, exclusions, residences, security, etc. Requirements that some might call closer first order human rights and needs.
Democracy matters: Whose revolution is this?
The university management wrote media releases and sent out student communiqués that strongly expressed their discontent with the lack of communication and respect for due process that had been displayed by the perpetrators of the ‘vandalism’. The establishment bemoaned the erosion of democratic culture. I feel inclined to agree. A major difference between us and UCT is that the organisations on UCT’s campus have had a prolonged transformation dialogue where they have allowed for the adequate expression of the feelings of most black students. These students have expressed that they do not feel included by their institution and that they have struggled to identify with a university run by white men, dominated by white people, and primarily focused on teaching from the white man’s perspective. There has been no such movement at UKZN. At face value it is unclear that we even have a real transformation problem. If there is, nobody is expressing it in a way we as students can identify with. If anything, I am more inclined to believe we have the opposite problem of too much politics and not enough academics.
The question, then, is if there is a movement on the cards where does it come from?
As far as I can tell, this self-proclaimed revolution is happening on Facebook. Alumni with FOMO, interested third parties, professional social media intellectuals and aspiring Mandela Rhodes scholars are the primary actors whose voices are crowding out those of real UKZN students. Big words seem to be a more important currency than the lived experiences of real people. In the wake of hundreds of years of subjugation, black South Africans are an angry people, and a culture of dutiful communitarianism mean that we are a people who are unfortunately easy to manipulate. Nevertheless, the aforementioned category of demagogues has failed to mobilise black rage on our campus, but they have proceeded with this movement regardless.
When I arrived at the site of the ‘protest’ on the 26th, an acquaintance, who had seen my social media activity expressing reservations, approached me and asked if I was part of “the majority of UKZN students who think this is a game”. I was baffled. My immediate feeling was to question why, if you are aware you have no claim to represent the majority of students, you feel entitled to vandalise my law school and expect my support while holding student political processes hostage? Granted, radical acts of civil disobedience are an inherently undemocratic form of protest as they allow an extreme minority to attract disproportionate amount of attention to a particular cause, but radical political activism is sometimes necessary and justifiable. As argued above, this is not such an instance. Moreover, the question posed to me betrayed a character that I think lies at the heart of this movement: a deeply paternalistic and condescending black intellectual elitism. A form of imperialist black consciousness, if you will.
If you thought I was arguing that UKZN is too poor to worry about symbolic oppression and freedom, my point is quite the opposite. Being poor and militant has allowed us to fall victim to a different type of disenfranchisement. Far too often the oppression of black people is limited to an abstract idea of white superiority and vague suspicions of systemic racism, whereas every day there are black people who unilaterally decide our voices do not matter because we have not read The Wretched of the Earth. I have grown sick and tired of having every self-proclaimed Pan-Africanist intellectual feel qualified to speak on my behalf. I am even more tired of being told that I am too ignorant to recognise my own oppression. Life cannot be treated like a critical race theory seminar where you get credited for selectively parroting Biko. I thought UKZN was the one place I would be safe from such obnoxious discourse. I feel like if I hear one more person quote “the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” I will burn every edgy, upmarket coffee shop in Durban.
Political capital is a resource
Assuming UKZN’s movement would resemble UCT’s, committing to such protest would only serve to undermine the purported cause of serving the vulnerable. Firstly because it is deeply and needlessly divisive, and secondly because it will burn up the resources we rely on to combat oppression when it arises.
Student protest is most effective when it is widely supported. Where this protest claims to be part of the transformation efforts, it makes transformation more difficult by alienating people in two ways. First, it vilifies anyone who appears to disagree. Almost every reservation is met with self-righteous moral outrage, intellectual condescension or, increasingly, vulgar insults. The prevailing assumption appears to be that once you categorise an argument under the heading ‘black rage’ it becomes immune to criticism. Maybe it’s just my Facebook friends. I doubt it is. There are certainly some intellectuals who are making a genuine effort to conscientise the masses; I wish to take nothing away from them. The problem, however, is that those who share their opinion pieces don’t seem to believe the merits of their arguments are up for discussion.
For every person with a reasoned explanation for the protest, there are 10 people shouting, “you’re either with us or against us”. This is something I have, quite literally, seen many people say. It is scary. When the automatic response to every sceptic is to accuse and insult rather than engage, your movement is more likely to descend into divisive source of pain and a hindrance on social cohesion than it is to result in sustainable momentum. This was self-evident on the morning of the 26th March where, among other things, Indian students were threatened with deportation by an EFF member at the protest. Even now, as I write this article, I fear the wrath of the black bourgeoisie. Those who are involved in student activism on campus are probably less likely to invite me to their forums if I am considered a counter-revolutionary at best and a house negro at worst. I am probably also less likely to concern myself with their politics if I feel deeply alienated from the prevailing group-think.
Second, this protest movement is needlessly racially combative. Just once I’d like to see a white person be allowed to offer a comment that won’t be countered with ad hominem attacks. This discussion has definitely helped us discover who the racists in our society are. I’m not sure why that’s valuable, but knowledge is power I guess. The price of this knowledge, however, has been countless racism witch-hunts that have pushed white people into a dichotomy between embracing a white-guilt fuelled apology spree or resentful silence. Neither is helpful to me as a black student, but this will bear a toll when we next attempt to unify the student body. The idea we’re expected to embrace is that we don’t need white approval to fight for our rights. This is romantic but unhelpful.
The smoothest protest I have seen at UKZN was one where the entire student body, all races, staged a non-violent sit-in and collectively boycotted lectures. Given that most years, the protest action consists of racing from corner to corner of the university trying to get white students out of lectures only for them to return once the mob is out of sight, it is probably unwise to erode the fragile unity we had begun to forge. Lastly, this movement will without doubt pit students against university management. With a new vice-chancellor, major reform may be on the cards. We would probably be better served by beginning our relationship with this new establishment in good faith, rather than burning bridges we are yet to cross. On the day old George was defaced, senior staff in the law faculty was livid. Howard College used to be the most beautiful and regal building on campus. Understandably, those in power will mark this as an act of criminality rather than protest. We should perhaps pick our battles more strategically.
The flippant response to the idea that we should prioritise has been that there is nothing stopping us from having every cause addressed. Political capital, with the university management and with the student body, is a limited resource – one that is being wasted by this protest. The most obvious intangible cost of such protest action is time. Unlike UCT, we have to have such protests annually. Forgive us for not having stars in our eyes at the prospect of uniting and mobilising to achieve a collective aim. For us, that is not a romanticised choice, rather a factor of circumstance. Each year we begin by praying that we won’t need another mass protest, then when we inevitably are thrown into one we pray that the cause is not one that has been artificially inflated by opportunistic student politicians; then we pray that the majority of students are not too self-interested to participate meaningfully. How, then, are we not inhibited by a protest movement that a substantial portion of the students think is superfluous?
This article is intended as a call to caution. It normally doesn’t hurt to have conversations about transformation and even to make reasonable requests for specific actions, but it is possible to do so in a way that is not damaging to the political culture of our institution. I, for one, value UKZN precisely because in character our politics are usually humble and respectful of the voices of the average black South African. Militant, but reasonable. Conscious of the daily life we navigate. I am finding it increasingly difficult to relate to certain voices at this institution. Perhaps they should allow others to speak for themselves or move to UCT; they would likely feel more at home. DM
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Elisha Kunene is a young man who after five years at UKZN is still trying to wrap his head around how much bigger Durban is than his hometown, Estcourt. Elisha spends far too much of his time teaching school children how to debate and working in student body organisations. In what time he has remaining he studies towards his law degree at Howard College, people-watches at malls and mourns the failure of his rap career. He is hoping to get better at writing soon.